How to Develop Inclusive Board Games

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Board game development is a very individual process. Every single developer has different methods for creating their games. This article is the twelfth of a 19-part suite on board game design and development.

Accessibility is a big issue in board gaming. It’s also a very complex issue that is hard to talk about succinctly because it covers game design, product testing, individual behavior, and group behavior under a lot of different circumstances. To help understand this subject, I’ve brought in Dr. Michael Heron of Meeple Like Us.

This our third accessibility article. I recommend you read the first one and the second one as well.

 

Twilight Struggle does better than you’d think on a colorblindness test. (Photo from Meeple Like Us).

 

But first, let’s go ahead and define accessibility, using Michael’s own words (paraphrased):

 

Accessible games are ones where people can still play your game even if they have extraordinary usability needs. An inaccessibility is any feature of a game that presents a barrier to enjoyment. Mostly it’s about how information is presented and how the game is manipulated, but I also include aspects of cultural inaccessibility and representation.

This guide comes in three parts:

  • Socioeconomic Accessibility
  • Intersectional Accessibility
  • Parting Words

 

Below is a transcript of our conversation over Discord DMs. It has been lightly edited for clarity and flow.

 


 

Socioeconomic Accessibility

 

Brandon: Now what about socioeconomic accessibility? What is that and what does it entail?

Michael: For this we need to recontextualise the discussion a bit – this kind of work is often characterised as being about disability, but it really isn’t – disability is just the most obvious “use case” for the findings. As such, when this category comes around people tend to be a little quizzical because it doesn’t look like it’s in scope. But if we go back to the earlier discussion about accessibility, I said “an inaccessibility is any feature of a game that presents a barrier for someone when it comes to enjoying the game you’ve designed.”

Michael: Sometimes those barriers are in terms of how a game presents itself to gamers that don’t fall within the usual stereotype bracket of what a gamer involves. Here we tend to discuss issues of representation and inclusion. I firmly believe, and the research backs me up, that people need to see people like them reflected in a cultural product before they see it as being for people like them.

Michael: When under-represented groups look at a shelf of board games and see only white men staring back at them, that creates an accessibility barrier – one that exists before you get into the interaction model used for the game. It’s not something that stops someone from playing a game, but one that puts a psychological obstacle in place. Boys don’t play with Barbies very much because Barbies are “for girls.” Lego, until very recently, had a reputation for being “for boys.”

Michael: You see this divide in any toy shop – boys’ toys versus girls’ toys. Play isn’t gendered though, and these are artificial distinctions. They keep kids from playing outside of their expected sociological role. Board games do the same thing when they don’t have women in the art, or have a sea of white faces, or portray ethnicities or genders in careless ways. Scantily clad women, stereotypical Middle Eastern cultures, the reductive portrayal of complex and sophisticated cultures… all of that is a sociological accessibility issue.  It makes people less inclined to play even if there’s technically nothing actually stopping them.

 

Thankfully, representation on boxes doesn’t have to be that hard.

 

Michael: And this is bound up in an economic context too because the groups most impacted by all the categories we discuss on Meeple Like Us are the ones that, statisically speaking, are the ones most likely to have economic considerations that prohibit full and unconcerned engagement with the hobby.

Michael: But the issue is further interlinked by the way in which many games handle diversity in their representation, especially in licensed properties.

Michael: The “big names” in a franchise are overwhelmingly likely to be white men and they’ll be the ones most prominent in the game that you buy. Other characters, if they’re available at all, are often offloaded into expansion packs.

Michael: So there is a kind of economic tax you pay just in order to see “people like me” reflected in the game that you want to play.

Michael: Any game that is lazy about its representation, or is lassiez-faire about the implications of its business model, or how those intersect, are going to have that discussed as part of a Meeple Like Us analysis.

Michael: Coupled to that is the issue of “value for money” which is somewhat nebulous but also bound up in a socioeconomic context.

Michael: Buying a game for £100 that only supports two players is a hard sell for someone that might only have £20 they can spend on games in a month and have to make the game cater for a large family with varied patterns of work and availability.

Brandon: To sum it up, socioeconomic accessibility goes beyond simply making games that work for people with disabilities. It goes beyond even using good game design practices and simplifying game processes and experiences. It’s about making games for more gamers.

Brandon: Cultural sensitivity on board game boxes and in art goes a long way – no chainmail bikinis or offensive stereotypes of other cultures.

Brandon: Something as simple as including people of different genders and ethnicities in prominent art can make a difference.

Brandon: Everybody likes seeing people who look like them in the media. It’s just a cool feeling. Why not share that with people who don’t get that as often?

Brandon: It can make somebody’s day, you know?

Brandon: As for cost issues, strictly the “economic” part of “socioeconomic” – that’s complex for game devs.

Brandon: It’s a fact that hobby board games in small print runs have to run a bit expensive compared to what’s in Walmart or Target. That is unavoidable.

Brandon: You can, however, reduce cost problems for both you and your players by researching manufacturing and fulfillment in great detail.

Brandon: This is one of the critical things you have to get right if you want to make it in this industry.

 

Intersectional Accesibility

 

Brandon: Now you briefly touched on intersectionality – the last of the accessibility categories that we listed a bit earlier.

Brandon: Intersectionality is kind of a complex subject. How would you describe it in a nutshell?

Michael: Occasionally there are issues that manifest not because of one condition or another, but because of how they come together. For example, a hidden hand of cards might be fine for someone with visual impairments if they can bring them up close for examination. It might be fine for someone with physical constraints because their card holder is holding them in place without discomfort. However, if someone has to take into account visual and physical impairments there’s a problem that comes from that intersection. It’s about dealing with the fact that accessibility issues are often cross-category and there are implications with that.

Brandon: Any really good, familiar examples come to mind?

Michael: Verbalising instructions might be fine if someone has physical restrictions, but that compensation may not be feasible if paired with a communication impairment.

Michael: It’s also something that covers factors that don’t belong to any one individual category. For example, many conditions have modulating severity – you might be fine at the start of a game but experience discomfort as time goes by. Game length, and intensity of the game, becomes a factor there. If things get too difficult to bear a player might want to drop out of play – some games permit that without too much difficulty, others basically needed to be ended when a player drops out. Time limits in games cause accessibility issues for almost everyone, as does intense competition where players are looking to benefit from informational asymmetry.

Brandon: So it’s best not to see intersectionality as strictly corner cases where multiple unlikely things converge at once…

Michael: That’s definitely part of it, but not the whole of it.

Brandon: It’s also a matter of regular accessibility issues being exacerbated by time and intensity.

Michael: But it’s also one of the things you need to consider generally – one of the most common causes of visual impairment is diabetes. That often comes with nerve damage in the extremities, which in turn makes physical interaction more difficult. It’s often not the case that there’s just one accessibility complication to consider – they often come in sets.

Michael: And that’s especially true when you consider accessibility as a function of age. We all suffer various physical degradations as time goes by, but not uniformly. And it happens so gradually that often we don’t even think of ourselves as needing accessibility support.

Michael: Everyone is a unique data point – a highly individualised blend of individualised considerations of varying severity.

Brandon: Just to drill your diabetes point home, a quick Google search on my end shows that 9.4% of the US population has diabetes.

 

Yeah, it surprised me when I first saw it, too.

 

Brandon: That’s about 30 million people here. So this is not some academic issue. This is a practical issue for game developers.

Brandon: Also, wow, that is a much higher number than I thought it would be.

Brandon: Plus just about everybody will have some sort of accessibility issue as they age. It could be as simple as “I needed reading glasses once I turned 40.”

Michael: Definitely. The number of people who are actually impacted by these issues is massive. Around 8% of the male population in the west has some form of colour blindness. About 10% of the population in general have some form of self-reported disability, and it’s probably closer to about 20% given that many people don’t consider themselves to fall into that category even if they would benefit from accessibility support.

Michael: In fact, I just checked and the CDC says one in five.

Brandon: So with all this in mind, what is the best approach to handling intersectional accessibility?

Michael: I think by far the most useful tool for this, and all accessibility categories, is just designing with empathy in mind. Consider what you’re asking people to do and where the stresses in your game system are. We’re working on formal tabletop accessibility guidelines to give some actionable advice in each category, but in the end it’s always going to be down to the unique combination of your game and someone you likely don’t know out in the world. Simply trying to consider your game from angles you may not have considered is incredibly valuable, although if you can actually test with people with disabilities that’s obviously so much better.

Brandon: If you try to cover all the other areas as best you can, it tends to alleviate some of the worst intersectional issues too.

Brandon: And as always, play-test, play-test, play-test. That’s the best way to identify problems. The more people the better. In fact, I bumped up Byways font from 9 point to 12 point because I saw somebody squinting at the card text.

 

Parting Advice

 

Brandon: Any last parting advice for game devs hoping to make games for more gamers?

Michael: It’s great to make games accessible because it’s the right thing to do, but that doesn’t have to be the reason. It’s also good business sense – the competition out there is fierce, and there is a massive and largely untapped market out there for a game designer with a focus on accessibility. It’s a selling point – it’s good marketing, and every time you show people that you’re taking accessibility into account you show more people that this is a hobby that’s for them. You’re designing for yourself in the future, but you’re also expanding your own brand and your own audience. Morality is a great motivator, but there’s nothing quite like self-interest to really seal the deal. 🙂

Brandon: Forget economic good sense and ethics, I’m in it for the self-interest! 😛

Michael: So say we all.

Brandon: Thank you very much, this has been great and I can’t wait to share this online!

Michael: Fun chatting with you as ever.  🙂

 


 

Often times, small tweaks and a general sense of awareness go a long way toward creating professional and polished board games. By exploring some of the ways we can make games more accessible, especially socially, we can create games that more people can play. More fun for everyone!

Here are some key takeaways:

  • Don’t stereotype your players.
  • Represent women and ethnic minorities in box and game art.
  • When representing women and ethnic minorities, do not stereotype in the art.
  • Make sure you represent all kinds of players in your base game – not just expansions.
  • Don’t make your game super expensive.
  • Use gender neutral text in your written materials.
  • Realize that sometimes multiple accessibility issues happen simultaneously, creating intersectional accessibility issues.
  • Be careful about your game’s run time.
  • If possible, make a game where people can drop out without breaking the game.
  • Make games that you’ll still be able to use as you age.
  • Accessibility isn’t just about morality or cost – it’s about making something you and others will be able to use for a long time.

 

Got any questions or comments? Leave them below, I’d love to read and respond to them 🙂

How to Develop Mentally and Emotionally Accessible Board Games

Posted on Leave a commentPosted in Start to Finish

Board game development is a very individual process. Every single developer has different methods for creating their games. This article is the eleventh of a 19-part suite on board game design and development.

Accessibility is a big issue in board gaming. It’s also a very complex issue that is hard to talk about succinctly because it covers game design, product testing, individual behavior, and group behavior under a lot of different circumstances. To help understand this subject, I’ve brought in Dr. Michael Heron of Meeple Like Us.

This our second accessibility article. I recommend you read the first one here.

 

Colorblindness results from Century Spice Road. (Photo from Meeple Like Us).

 

But first, let’s go ahead and define accessibility, using Michael’s own words (paraphrased):

 

Accessible games are ones where people can still play your game even if they have extraordinary usability needs. An inaccessibility is any feature of a game that presents a barrier to enjoyment. Mostly it’s about how information is presented and how the game is manipulated, but I also include aspects of cultural inaccessibility and representation.

This guide comes in three parts:

  • Cognitive Accessibility
  • Communicative Accessibility
  • Emotional Accessibility

 

Below is a transcript of our conversation over Discord DMs. It has been lightly edited for clarity and flow.

 


 

Cognitive Accessibility

 

Brandon: Let’s talk about cognitive and communicative accessibility. What are some ways in which games often fail to be cognitively accessible?

Brandon: For clarity: referring to both fluid intelligence and memory here.

Michael: This is one of the hardest categories for a modern designer game to do well within – the more strategically and tactically interesting a game is, the harder it is for it to be delivered as a cognitively accessible experience.    Even saying that, though, there are particular things that are especially troublesome – heavy amounts of synergy, mutable game flow, numeracy and complex literacy needs, heavy use of probability, inconsistent terminologies and complex conditionals in rules (if this then than except… sort of thing).

Michael: Memory suffers when playing well is dependent on knowing hidden game state – cards in a deck builder or such. There are also games that rely on elements of general knowledge or trivia, or have actions that have counteractions that can be counteracted. That means it’s hard enough remembering what you’re doing now before you even think about rolling back the overall stack of actions to where you started.

Michael: There are some nice ways to help resolve these problems though – one of my favourites is when games have a “simple” version of a game and you can layer in additional complexity with built-in rules and systems. It’s best if it’s refereed to as something other than “simple” though because there’s a kind of stigma that attaches to terms like that. I like it when games offer a visual cue as to probability (like Catan’s number tiles), and when arithmetic operations come with physical tokens that you can manipulate instead of doing straight up arithmetic. Memory is best supported by just making sure that every part of the game state has some kind of physical token to represent it.

 

Lanterns includes reference cards that serve as memory aids. (Photo from Meeple Like Us).

 

Michael: Some games involve layering in complexity within stacks, or have game systems that obscure the visibility of other game elements. I’m currently playing the Game of Thrones card game which does that a lot – you “attach” cards to other cards and in the process you end up hiding game state while at the same time you’re making it more complex. Avoiding that is a good technique, even if it’s somewhat situationally dependent on the game’s overall design.

Michael: One of the more useful observations here is that while complex games are likely to be cognitively inaccessible, it’s not necessarily the case that simple games are cognitively accessible. It’s more about the game state and how that game state is manipulated. Once Upon a Time for example is a very simple game that is very cognitively expensive because it’s about building stories, holding them in mind and locating points of narrative leverage where you can intercede.

Brandon: Generally, you want the cognitive accessibility to match the intention of the game itself. If it’s a thinker of a game, it doesn’t have to be super accessible…

Brandon: But

Brandon: And this is a big caveat here

Brandon: It needs to be as straightforward as you can possibly make it. Avoid annoying memory issues by providing reference cards and simple methods of tracking. Have rules that minimize the need for rote memorization. (A lot of this is just good game design.)

Brandon: My absolute favorite way to deal with cognitive accessibility is also possibly the hardest: making a game that can be enjoyed on many levels. Very superficial and straightforward strategies, though not necessarily optimal, should still be able to win or – at the very least – really fun to play.

Brandon: This is a personal design philosophy of mine.

Michael: Randomness can be a great leveler in this category too.

Brandon: I always like having a little luck in a game since it:

  1. Keeps games from becoming solved games.
  2. Makes simple strategies viable while still letting people play 12 dimensional chess if they want to.
  3. Makes emotional aspects easier as well. Less despair / foregone conclusion issues and so on.

 

Communicative Accessibility

 

Brandon: What are some ways in which games fail to achieve communicative accessibility?

Michael: Mostly this is an area where games do quite well – there are few games where there’s a real need for communication beyond the level of table talk. There are, though, a family of social games that stress communication, usually within tight constraints or complex scenarios, where there are going to be problems.

Michael: For one thing, articulation difficulties can make it difficult to make an argument using odd, game specific terminology or jargon. If you’re doing that to a time limit, it’s even harder. If you’re doing it when other people are trying to talk over you, it’s harder still. And if you’re doing all of that when other people around the table are trying to make you look like a liar (games like Resistance as an example), you’ve got a recipe for profound inaccessibility.

Michael: Similarly with hearing difficulties – if your ability to play the game depends on picking up on conversational nuance or the like it’s going to be a problem. Some games make use of audio signals to indicate things should happen too – Escape: Curse of the Temple, for example, has a gong that rings to indicate that players should scurry on back to the central cavern. Many of these games offer alternatives, like hourglasses, but while those work they change the game around them – you need to keep checking the time yourself instead of being notified when it’s time to do something.

 

Escape: Curse of the Temple includes an hourglass for when audio cues are not appropriate – a thoughtful gesture. (Photo from Meeple Like Us).

 

Brandon: It seems like most games can avoid big issues simply by using straightforward writing and staying away from audio cues.

Brandon: As for games where lying, bluffing, or audible communication of strategy is involved, that is more of a genre/category issue and less of an individual game issue.

 

Emotional Accessibility

 

Brandon: Now here’s where we get into the “persistently controversial” stuff.

Brandon: Emotional, socioeconomic, and intersectional issues.

Brandon: Brace yourself.

Brandon: What considerations are there when making emotionally accessibile games?

Michael: Board games are all about the social context, and to a certain extent, every game is going to be risky in this category – bad winners and bad losers transcend anything a designer can do. But there are some things that tend to exacerbate issues in this category – player elimination, ‘take that’ mechanics, the extent to which the players at a table can gang up on another player, winning-to-losing point differences, or being able to directly remove progress another player has been made. There are also a category of games (chess, Hive, and so on) that have a kind of “sheen” of intellectualism about them – it’s not true that the smartest person will win a game of chess but that’s often how society will interpret it.  On a broader level, there are also issues of emotional accessibility that are associated with certain developmental conditions – a need to lie, a need to bluff, a need to read people at a table are examples of that kind of thing.

Brandon: Would you say this is the hardest area to consider in regards to overall accessibility?

Michael: It’s a toss-up between this and cognitive accessibility – the real problem here is that you have to design against a social context over which you have almost zero control, and it’s not even necessarily one where behavioural conditions even need to manifest for it to be a problem. We all know a bad winner or an obnoxious loser. And yet we all also know gracious winners and losers that can make even pointedly aggressive games lose any sting that goes with them. All you can really do is try to minimise the common catalysts for emotional upset – assuming that’s a goal you can meet within your game design.

Brandon: For both emotional and cognitive accessibility, I recommend taking a really close look at your target audience again. “Mean” games can get away with early player elimination and take that. “Nice” games can’t. Know what your game is and know who it appeals to.

Brandon: Make choices on purpose.

Brandon: Oddly enough, this mindset of optimizing emotional and cognitive accessibility can be really good for diagnosing serious marketing issues early because they’re so subjective.

 


 

In next week’s article, we’ll continue our conversation, focusing especially on the social aspects of board game accessibility.

Often times, small tweaks and a general sense of awareness go a long way toward creating professional and polished board games. By exploring some of the ways we can make games more accessible, especially mentally and emotionally, we can create games that more people can play. More fun for everyone!

Here are some key takeaways:

  • Only have strategic synergy in your game when it makes sense for what you’re trying to do.
  • Keep the flow of your game consistent unless changing the gameplay flow is part of the game.
  • Keep wording as simple as possible.
  • Use probability wisely, making it instinctive for players through visual cues if possible.
  • Use terminology consistently.
  • Don’t include complex conditional statements in your rules unless you have to.
  • Don’t rely on general knowledge.
  • Don’t rely on knowledge of trivia.
  • Don’t require memory unless it’s part of your game.
  • Use tokens for arithmetic if possible.
  • Minimize the need for communication (outside of table talk).
  • Don’t rely on audio signals.
  • Be aware that games with lying, bluffing, and audible communication may exclude subsets of people.
  • Be careful with player elimination and take that.
  • Keep losers and winners relatively close in points if you can.
  • Don’t allow players to directly remove progress other players have made.
  • Be aware of what kind of game you’re making.

 

Got any questions or comments? Leave them below, I’d love to read and respond to them 🙂

How to Develop Visually and Physically Accessible Board Games

Posted on 3 CommentsPosted in Start to Finish

Board game development is a very individual process. Every single developer has different methods for creating their games. This article is the tenth of a 19-part suite on board game design and development.

Accessibility is a big issue in board gaming. It’s also a very complex issue that is hard to talk about succinctly because it covers game design, product testing, individual behavior, and group behavior under a lot of different circumstances. To help understand this subject, I’ve brought in Dr. Michael Heron of Meeple Like Us.

 

Carcassonne being tested for visual accessibility. (Photo from Meeple Like Us)

 

But first, let’s go ahead and define accessibility, using Michael’s own words (paraphrased):

 

Accessible games are ones where people can still play your game even if they have extraordinary usability needs. An inaccessibility is any feature of a game that presents a barrier to enjoyment. Mostly it’s about how information is presented and how the game is manipulated, but I also include aspects of cultural inaccessibility and representation.

This guide comes in four parts:

  • Who is Michael and what is Meeple Like Us?
  • What is accessibility and why does it matter?
  • Visual Accessibility
  • Physical Accessibility

 

Below is a transcript of our conversation over Discord DMs. It has been lightly edited for clarity and flow.

 


 

Who is Michael and what is Meeple Like Us?

 

Brandon: Thank you very much for agreeing to help with this post!

Brandon: Tell me a little about yourself and Meeple Like Us.

Michael: I’m a lecturer in computing at Robert Gordon University in Scotland. My main research interests are accessibility, games, but especially accessibility in games. Previously I’ve been mostly focused on video games, with a special emphasis on games with unusual interfaces, such as text-based games. A couple of years ago I got into tabletop games in a reasonably big way, and as I saw my collection start to balloon I decided I need a way to pretend this was in some way an endeavour that had some applicability to my career. Thus began a study of the accessibility of tabletop games. That in turn resulted in Meeple Like Us where I document all my observations about the games I play.

Brandon: You go into a lot of depth on Meeple Like Us, especially on board game accessibility teardowns. For those who haven’t had the pleasure of reading one, they cover eight different areas of game accessibility and show how well a game covers each one.

Brandon: Nothing comes out alive! Except for, I want to say Splendor, but correct me if I’m wrong here.

Michael: There haven’t been a lot of games that have come out unscathed, but really that’s not surprising – they’re being judged against criteria that are sometimes contradictory, sometimes counter to the game design, and sometimes just really, really difficult to meet. Some of the games that have come out smelling of roses have been Skull, Love Letter, Lanterns and most recently Blank and Wibbell++. Cottage Garden, as yet an unpublished post, also does very well.  Mostly, games tend to fall down in one or two categories rather than across the board (although there are a few of those too). In the end, it’s not so much about complaining, but about trying to give people some insight into game elements that usually don’t get covered in reviews.

 

Catan’s accessibility ranking on Meeple Like Us. Pretty middle of the road. (Photo from Meeple Like Us).

 

Brandon: Right, and the difficult criteria are not there to condemn, but rather to show ways in which game developers can make their games more accessible.

Michael: Yep, absolutely. One of the difficult things about designing for accessibility is that often the compensations for one category come at the expense of another. Icons can sometimes be good for visual accessibility (information dense while taking up small amounts of space), but be a problem from a cognitive perspective as an example.

 

Michael: So in a lot of cases it’s not pointing out mistakes, but pointing out where design or graphical choices are likely to be a problem for people.

Brandon: So it’s about making conscious choices that benefit as many people as you can.

Michael: Absolutely – inaccessibility comes at you from all kinds of angles and they’re often not obvious. Tales of the Arabian Nights, for example, is a mostly narrative game that is a problem for those with physical accessibility concerns purely because of the fact the spiral binding in the book tends to stick and becomes difficult to manipulate.

Michael: There are some clear, uncontroversial accessibility wins, but more often it’s a case of just trying to maximise the accessibility for the groups you’re looking to design for. A dexterity game likely won’t ever score highly for people with physical accessibility concerns. A game of pattern matching probably won’t be great for people with visual accessibility issues. It’s about being conscious of the inaccessibilities even if sheer pragmatics mean you can’t do much about them without changing a game into something different.

 

What is accessibility and why does it matter?

 

Brandon: So here’s an “easy” question.

Brandon: What, broadly speaking, is accessibility in board gaming? Why does it matter?

Michael: A quick definition of accessibility would be “people can play your game if they have extraordinary usability needs.”

Michael: An inaccessibility is any feature of a game that presents a barrier for someone when it comes to enjoying the game you’ve designed. I have a holistic approach to this that also includes aspects of cultural inaccessibility – that sometimes it’s not an aspect of a game as it exists but how that game is presented in its art, aesthetics or theme.   Issues of representation are a big part of what gets talked about in each teardown. Mostly, though, it’s about how information is presented and how the game is manipulated.

Michael: It matters because a) there are a lot of people out there with accessibility needs, and b) we are all going to fall into that category sooner or later. The accessibility issues we discuss on Meeple Like Us aren’t just factors of disability, but also of aging. Assuming any of us ever get to retire, and assuming we want to play the games we never had time for in our working lives, we’re going to want them to be accessible.

Brandon: It’s a good way to include as many people in on the fun as possible – including ourselves in the future!

Brandon: Running with your definition, I’d like to point out that your own site splits it into eight broad categories, which I’ll just paste here:

  • Visual
  • Physical
  • Cognitive (split into Fluid Intelligence and Memory)
  • Communicative
  • Emotional
  • Socioeconomic
  • Intersectional

Brandon: I’d like to dive into each of these in further detail.

Michael: Sure thing.

 

Visual Accessibility

 

Brandon: What are some ways in which games often fail to be visually accessible?

Michael: Well, the most common one is colour blindness – it amazes me that in 2017 we’re still seeing games that use palettes that are a problem, and not doubling up game elements with icons where it could be done. Other common inaccessibilities are tokens you can’t tell apart by touch (different denominations of money as an example), tiny text, random placement of game symbols, poor contrast, non-standard dice with special faces, paper money, and so on. More subtle things come in when you consider the realities of how people with visual impairments will interact with a game – touch where possible, as an example. That means that flimsy components tend to wear away over time.

Brandon: Colorblindness is the simplest thing to scan for. You don’t even have to use icons if you use a color-safe palette. Here’s an online tool you can use to simulate colorblindness.

 

Andy Warhol painting or accessibility test of an old Highways & Byways board?

 

Brandon: Tiny text is another usually straightforward fix because it’s usually covering up for overly verbose text – a larger problem.

Michael: Where possible, what you’re looking for here is redundancy of information – colours in a colour safe palette are great, but colour-blind senstive palettes with icons are better if you can accomodate that.   That way you get around environmental issues such as poor lighting too.

Brandon: And visual accessibility can be improved on more heavily used components just by upping the physical quality of the goods, too.

Brandon: Doing one is good. Doing both is better.

Michael: Yep. 🙂

Brandon: Flipping the question, what are some easy fixes to improve visible accessibility?

Brandon: As opposed to invisible accessibility, I suppose. I meant “visual.”

Michael: Haha

Michael: Larger fonts, limiting ornamentation, good contrast ratios, consistency of component layouts are all useful. When using physical components, follow the design of physical coinage – if you look at denominations of coins in your pocket you’ll see they usually alternate size and shape which means that you can tell the difference by touch. You can adopt that with any chits and counters in the game.

Michael: And again, avoid paper money.

Michael: That’s actually an interesting case study of accessibility in tabletop games.

Michael: Because there are ways in which paper money can be made accessibile in real life.

Michael: Such as the folding method where different denominations are given a different folding pattern so you can tell them apart in a pocket or wallet

Michael: But that doesn’t work in a game purely because of how rapidly money circulates in a game economy.

Brandon: Or you can do what we do in the US with paper money and make everything the same length and texture 😛

Brandon: Same issue board games have, by the way, with paper money. That’s why you avoid it. It’s annoyingly hard to fix that in small print runs – punchout coins are almost always a better, more cost-effective, more accessible option.

Michael: Yep. I don’t have those accessibility issues, but I will almost always replace paper money in any game with poker chips.

Brandon: You can always replace paper money in games with pounds sterling if you want to keep it really interesting.

Michael: With the way Brexit is going, that’s probably also cheaper than using paper money.

 

Physical Accessibility

 

Brandon: What are some ways in which games often fail to be physically accessible?

Michael: The main problem in games with physical accessibility problems is that they sometimes don’t offer people easy ways to verbalise their instructions. If you’re playing with someone that is fully unable to interact with a game, most of them can still be enjoyable if instructions can be delivered clearly and simply. But many game boards don’t offer easy ways to refer to game locations, or lack grid references or landmarks, or so on. Tight constraints or fiddly pieces are a problem, as are many different components of different kinds. Card shuffling can be a big problem too, especially in deck builders. Again, consider the real world way games get played in these circumstances – often with card holders and card shufflers to alleviate problems. Except that may not work if cards have key information along the edges that get covered by a card holder, or non-standard card sizes that don’t work in a shuffler.

Brandon: In general, you want mechanics to de-emphasize fiddly actions as much as possible. And cut out parts when you can.

Brandon: Regarding physical accessibility, what best practices can you recommend for piece size, board landmarks/references, and card shuffling?

Michael: Bigger and chunkier is better, but there are obviously cost considerations there. Standard card sizes where possible, and as generous as you can be with physical proportions in board state and the like. Try to limit hand sizes, and provide alternatives to fine motor control – let people position rather than flick, for example. Position game information where it’s not going to be obscured by card holders.  Also remember that a good insert can be a user interface tool in your game – a well designed insert can help limit game sprawl by permitting components to be kept in the box rather than on a table.

 

Hive components are a good weight and thickness. (Photo from Meeple Like Us).

 

Michael: Mostly though, make sure it’s possible for people to unambigiously describe any action they want to take in the game and where they want to take it. If you have a map, provide landmarks. If you have a grid, provide chess style grid references.

Brandon: A simple grid overlay and using thicker tokens is a really simple fix, for example.

Brandon: That’s as easy as saying “2.5 mm punchboard instead of 1.8 mm” – very little material price difference and can be night and day for some.

 


 

In next week’s article, we’ll continue our conversation, focusing especially on the mental and emotional aspects of board game accessibility.

Often times, small tweaks and a general sense of awareness go a long way toward creating professional and polished board games. By exploring some of the ways we can make games more accessible, especially visually and physically, we can create games that more people can play. More fun for everyone!

Here are some key takeaways:

  • Accessibility is about making games for as many people as possible.
  • No game can be accessible in every situation. Accessibility is about practicing mindful design with your target audience in mind.
  • Use colorblind-friendly palettes.
  • Pair icons with colors when possible.
  • Make tokens differentiable by touch.
  • Use the largest font size possible.
  • Use game symbols sparingly and deliberately.
  • Make it high contrast.
  • Try to avoid non-standard dice.
  • Avoid paper money.
  • Use consistent layouts.
  • Make it possible for people to verbalize their instructions if they can’t touch the pieces. Include landmarks or a grid on your game if appropriate.
  • Avoid tight physical placement and fiddly pieces.
  • Avoid excessive card shuffling.
  • Avoid placing critical information near the edge of cards.
  • Use thicker pieces when possible (such as 2.5mm punchboard).
  • Limit hand sizes when using cards.

 

Got any questions or comments? Leave them below, I’d love to read and respond to them 🙂